Illini Open Season with 3-0 Sweep of Long Beach State
August 29, 2014
Champaign, Ill. - The Fighting Illini volleyball team opened the 2014 season on a high note with a three-set sweep of Long Beach State at the Illini Classic. Illinois used composure down the stretch to top the 49ers, 25-21, in each of the first two sets, then rolled to a 25-15 win in the third to complete the sweep in both teams' first match of the season.
"I thought they settled in and played determined to win which is what we wanted to see," said head coach Kevin Hambly. "We found a way to win in those [first] two sets. We played with a nice level of determination and executed when it mattered."
Illinois' attackers were efficient on the night, outhitting Long Beach State .333 to .102, including a .519 clip in the second set. Junior outside hitter Jocelynn Birks led the balanced attack with 12 kills, hitting .455, followed by seniors Morganne Criswell and Liz McMahon with 10 apiece, including a .471 clip for McMahon. Sophomore middle blocker Katie Stadick had an outstanding 2014 debut, hitting .400 with five kills and five blocks, and McMahon put up five blocks as well. Anna Dorn stuffed her 400th career block in the second set, finishing the night with four, including securing the final two points of the match on back-to-back blocks.
"We were pretty physical with the change with running the 6-2, and I like what it does for our block," said Hambly. "People talk about what the 6-2 means offensively, but for me it's a lot more about what it means defensively because we get Ali [Stark] up there and she's a good blocker, she had two and did a good job of touching balls."
"It was really fun," said Stadick. "Lex and Allison did a great job of setting and opening things up on the court and spreading it out to all the hitters."
True freshman Brandi Donnelly made her Illini debut as the Orange and Blue's newest libero, pacing the back row with 14 digs, and Birks was a dig shy of a double-double with nine.
"I think she was a little jumpy on passing, but that all settled in," said Hambly of Donnelly's first NCAA match. "She made some great plays and she really started to get in a rhythm. Once we figured out where to put her, because you don't know anything about that team, then she really started to make some plays which was fun--They stayed away from her at the end."
The Illini opened up an early 6-3 lead in the first set, but Long Beach countered to tie the score at six. The score remained tight throughout the frame until the 49ers began to build momentum off a strong serving run from Lindsey Lawmaster, which gave LBSU its largest lead of the night, 20-17. However, after an Alex Reid kill made it 21-18, Birks slammed a kill then served out the set with the help of three blocks by Stadick to turn the tables and win the first frame, 25-21.
The second set was much like the first, as Illinois held onto a small advantage throughout the set until a 5-0 run put Long Beach on top, 15-12. However, Illinois battled back and once again turned a 19-21 deficit into a 25-21 victory, paced by a solid serving run by Palmer. Birks and Criswell were nearly flawless in the set, each tallying five kills and no errors, to help the team hit an outstanding .519 in the frame.
"During the break we saw how good we can be at closing the set, so we tried to have that mentality from the beginning," said McMahon, "and I think we did great at that."
And the Illini were certainly successful in that right, as the Orange and Blue exploded out of the break to take a 5-0 lead, which they would extend to 9-2 and never look back. Back-to-back blocks by the Illini's senior trio slammed the door on the opening match, as Illinois claimed the third set, 25-15.
"I think we were just dealing with nerves at the beginning, just trying to get used to the crowd and energy and just trying to get focused on what we needed to do," said Stadick. "And then the third set we were just ready to battle a little bit more."
The Illini are back in action with a pair of matches on Saturday, as the Illini play the first and last matches of day two at the Illini Classic. Play begins at 10 a.m. against Southern Illinois, then after a pair of neutral matches, the Illini will close out opening weekend with a matchup against No. 20 North Carolina, who topped SIU, 3-0, earlier tonight, at 7:30 p.m.
Both matches can be heard live online, with the SIU match airing on WDWS after the Illini football game at 4 p.m. and leading directly into the nightcap at 7:30. Live video of the UNC match will also be streamed online on Illini All-Access.